Ann Policelli Cronin

When we buy something, we should get what we pay for.

We, as U.S. taxpayers, spent $350 million for standardized tests to assess if students are mastering Common Core standards, and we are spending millions more at the state level to implement that testing. What we have been asked to buy is that teaching those standards and assessing them will make our students “college and career ready.”

But who knows? We need a warranty so we can return the standards and tests and get a new education for our children if they don’t work.

“Readiness for college and careers” will be measured by standardized tests given in Grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 11. As a parent, good standardized test scores were not what I asked of my children’s public schools. Instead, I asked that their teachers tap into my children’s love of learning, motivate them to want to learn more, and help them to grow in both their knowledge and their skills in building their own knowledge.

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Standardized tests give a very limited picture of a student, limited by the goals of the test-makers. What seems much more important, even in terms of college and careers, is that children enjoy a stimulating and challenging year in school and have ideas and skills in June they didn’t have in September, rather than receive a high score on a standardized test.

This standardized test of “college and career readiness” is particularly inappropriate and unreliable because not one teacher was involved in setting the learning goals. Of the 29 writers of those goals, called Common Core standards, 27 were employees of testing companies. People who know how to test but not how to teach decided exactly what our children need to be “ready” for and how they demonstrate that “readiness” each year, kindergarten through high school.

Similarly, in creating tests to measure “college readiness,” those most familiar with college expectations were not consulted. According to Joseph Willholt, executive director of Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC), one of two companies hired by the federal government to design the tests, no college faculty were involved in designing the tests for “college readiness.” Speaking recently at The University of Connecticut, he admitted there is a large “validity question” in making the claim for “college readiness” because it won’t be known if the 11th grade test actually measures “college readiness” until 2017, when the first test-takers complete their first year of college.

In addition, these tests do not assess career skills that U.S. workers will need for the global workforce, such as the ability to question, to collaborate with others of different cultures and points of view, to be innovative and to use meta-cognitive (learning how to learn) skills when facing new problems. Other countries we compete with have standards for those skills and assess those skills, but we do not assess them because they are not Common Core standards. I took the sample SBAC test on the Connecticut State Department of Education website. Not one question on it asked for those job skills our graduates need.

If we want the false security of a standardized test, we already have one that informs us that Connecticut students excel in an underlying “college and career readiness” skill: the ability to read thoughtfully and critically. The scores from the 2102 PISA, an international test that assessed 15-year-olds in 65 nations, plus the states of Connecticut, Florida and Massachusetts, ranked Connecticut fifth in the world in reading, closely behind its neighbor, fourth-ranked Massachusetts. What is truly astounding is that Connecticut has a huge achievement gap, yet, including advantaged and disadvantaged students, scored better than 62 nations.

We don’t hear about the excellent performance of Connecticut’s readers, which occurred before Common Core and the new tests for “college and career readiness.” Perhaps, that’s because the first rule of selling is to convince potential buyers they’re missing something and need the new product.

Texas, which has been the national leader in pushing test-based accountability since the 1990s, decided to not buy any more of it and threw out much of what they had. Shortly, before he resigned in 2012, Commissioner of Education Robert Scott called standardized testing “the heart of the vampire” and said he knew how subjective such tests are because each year he personally set the “cut score” or passing grade. Ultimately, 90 percent of locally elected Texas school boards said “Enough.” The legislature voted unanimously to restrict standardized testing, and the governor signed the bill into law.

But we in Connecticut are still buying the idea that learning can be measured by standardized tests. The cost is high – not just in money but also in the education our children are not receiving. As Carol Burris, an award-winning high school principal who first supported the Common Core but changed her mind after a year of implementation and testing in New York, said:

Eventually all of it will fail. But your child will not get another chance to be a third grader. We are on our way with the Common Core to creating a generation of students who will despise school before they get to college, ready or not. Our country and our children deserve better. (The Washington Post, April 7, 2013)

There is no warranty for the Common Core and its testing. Let’s look the governor, the commissioner of education and the State Board of Education in the eye and say: No Sale.

Ann Policelli Cronin is a consultant in English education for school districts and university schools of education. She has taught middle and high school English, was a district-level administrator for English, taught university courses in English education, and was assistant director of the Connecticut Writing Project. She was Connecticut Outstanding English Teacher of the Year and has received national awards for middle and high school curricula she designed and implemented.

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